The American Monastic Newsletter

Volume 42, Nr. 2a, June 2011                  Richardton, ND 58652

President's Message

The Ascensions and Pentecosts of Monasticism

As I ponder this column, the church is moving into and through the solemnities of the Ascension and Pentecost, celebrations that remind us of change, transformation and birth into new life. Change can be painful: security blankets, beloved institutions (big and small), self-perceptions of "who I am" or "who we are" die hard. We resist letting the old, familiar pass away. What if nothing new emerges? What if death is all there is?

The many snippets of ascension found in the Gospels (and Acts) remind us that Gods love for us is so profound that even through our tears of grief, doubt and confusion, God still reaches out to us and exhorts us to believe. The ever-faithful Mary Magdalene standing at the tomb, lost in her grief and not knowing how to move into the future without the One whom she loved, managed to so touch the heart of God that Jesus "interrupted" his ascension to the Father to return to the garden near the tomb to comfort her. "Mary, stop holding on to me, stop clinging, I have not yet ascended to my Father."

Mary recognized Jesus as someone she had known for at least three years and yet did not initially recognize, only after he spoke her name . . . a quality of voice, deep love, a friendship. Her mature discipleship allowed for new parameters of possibility and understanding. Mary Magdalene could perceive ascension; something was radically changing.

Ascension and resurrection moments abound. One of the many treasures of the Academy in all its ways of formally and informally gathering is to notice together what is falling away and what might be emerging. New forms of monasticism are being attempted (and tested). Small communities remain vital. New monastic communities are being established. Monasteries (and contemporary monastic gatherings) are increasingly global. Oblate programs are booming and oblates are yearning for something "more." Young people are taking Benedictine life into "the abandoned parts of the Empire." Is this resurrection? It is a tragedy if we miss the resurrection because God chose an expression that we had not expected. May we have eyes to see!

Transitions are hard and painful, even when they are essentially liberating. Are our monastic communities doing something new? Taking healthy, creative risk? Are we planning for life or for death?

Easter Resurrection . . . Ascension . . . Pentecost. Are we ready for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit into our (monastic) lives? For an empowerment possibly quite radically different than we've known in the past?

Laura Swan, OSB
President, American Benedictine Academy
Lswan @

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Election of Abbot/Prioress

It seems that elections are in the air this year at least I have noticed among womens Benedictine houses that many have held or will be holding their elections for prioress this year. That includes my own. So my mind turns to chapters 2 and 64 of the Rule of St. Benedict as well as to the canons on election of superiors. RB 64 is entitled "The Election of an Abbot" (Terrence Kardong translates this "The Installation of the Abbot"). Actually, very little is said in this chapter about the election procedure itself. Certainly there is nothing in the Rule similar to the detail that our present-day constitutions and the Code of Canon Law provide for elections. One commentator has said that, "In comparison with other rules and contemporary texts, the RB is notoriously obscure . . ." (RB 1980, Appendix 2, "The Abbot," 372-73).

What is certain is that St. Benedict "places confidence in the community to make the choice" of who will lead the community and take the place of Christ. This commentator points out that "the choice [of abbot] is really that of God; the human agents are merely intermediaries who try to discern his will" (RB 1980, 373).

Chapter 64 begins by stating that the community is to be guided by sound judgment in selecting the one to be placed in office. Benedict then gives two criteria by which the community is to choose that one: goodness of life and wisdom of teaching. According to RB 64, any member of the community, even if the last in community rank, may be elected as long as that one has goodness of life and wisdom in teaching. Other than that, the Rule does not give us much guidance on the election procedure itself. However, the Rule, especially in chapters 2 and 64, has much to say on the kind of person that the abbot or prioress is to be.

We are told in chapter 2 that the monastic superior is "believed to hold the place of Christ in the monastery" (RB 2.2). The abbot/prioress is, among other things, a teacher, head of the household, a shepherd, a healer, a leader, an example, and a director of souls. He or she is to be learned in divine law, chaste, temperate, merciful; to hate faults but love the members, punish using prudence and avoiding extremes, show forethought and consideration, be discerning and moderate, avoid favoritism; and must arrange everything so that the strong have something to yearn for and the weak nothing to run from. Above all, the abbot/prioress must keep the rule in every way so as to be an example to the members.

If nothing else, Benedict is clear that the monastic leader is to be moderate, not given to extremes, and is to show equal love to everyone and apply the same discipline to all according to their merits. This directive to love equally and yet treat them as the unique individuals they are is surely one of the most challenging tasks of the monastic superior.

The canons on superiors of religious institutes in some ways echo Benedict's Rule. Canon 619 directs that superiors are "to be an example to the members in cultivating virtues and in the observance of the laws and traditions of their particular institute [and] they are to meet the personal needs of the members in an appropriate fashion, look after solicitously and visit the sick, admonish the restless, console the faint in heart, and be patient toward all." This regard for the sick, the wayward and the weak is seen throughout the Rule. It is encouraging to see this monastic wisdom incorporated into the Code of Canon Law.

Regarding election of superiors, canon 626 directs the members to "elect those whom they know in the Lord to be truly worthy and suitable, having nothing in mind but God and the good of the institute." Is this not what St. Benedict also asks of the community in electing the monastic superior? Other than that, the canons on religious institutes leave the particulars of canonical election to the proper law of the institute; i.e., the constitutions and other manuals established within each institute.

In the case of Benedictines, there are constitutions of a congregation or federation, which are supplemented by the norms of the member monasteries of the congregation or federation. However, the canons do state that the institute's constitutions should provide a "suitable time after perpetual profession" in order for a person to be validly elected as a major superior (Canon 623). Canon 624 also directs that superiors are to be elected for a "certain and appropriate amount of time according to the nature and needs of the institute unless the constitutions state otherwise." This same canon requires that proper law provide that "superiors constituted for a definite time do not remain too long in offices of governance without an interruption."

Benedictine congregations and federations provide in their constitutions for either a term of office of a set number of years or for a time at which the monastic superior is to tender his/her resignation so that the monastic community can determine whether he/she should remain in office or another is to be elected.

Readers are reminded that the canon law columnist welcomes ideas for exploration in these columns. These may be submitted by email to slm @ or by post to

Lynn McKenzie, OSB
Sacred Heart Monastery
916 Convent Road NE
Cullman, AL 35055

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Sister Laura Swan, president of ABA, announced that she would be seeking "thought-provoking pieces on the theme, Seek Peace and Pursue It, for this newsletter" in the issues preceding the 2012 convention with that theme. Below is a contribution from noted oblate and spiritual writer Norvene Vest.

What is the pax of Benedictines? Is such peace the absence of conflict? Drawing on Paul Ricoeur's Oneself as Another, I suggest that in any community of mutual respect, conflict is inevitable because a pluralism of views insures a pluralism of opinions. The task for such a community is not to suppress conflict, but to develop means through which "conflicts are open and negotiable in accordance with recognized rules of arbitration" (Oneself, 258).

Central to such a task is the role of morality. Ricoeur distinguishes between ethics and morality, defining ethics as "aiming at the good life with and for others, in just institutions" (172). For Benedictines, the good life can be seen as following the Benedictine way of Gospel living. Morality represents only a partial fulfillment of the ethical aim, expressing as it does norms that claim to be universal and provide appropriate social constraint. Ricoeur envisions the maxims of morality as the upright beams of a structure, not its foundation. The ethical foundation of an organic community (one not governed by power as domination) must be created by some form of mutual commitment by which individual persons agree to commit themselves to a shared humanity (260).

Conflicts inevitably surface between the universal claims of moral rules and the historical/communal values of their context. In a complex world of plural identities, morality's claims will be challenged again and again on the basis of a wider ethical context within which that morality was originally formed. When the present "winners" and "losers" do not see that contemporary norms are located within an ethics of human equality, conflict escalates. When the ethical context is understood and valued, then movement can occur toward (another temporary) reconciliation, all in the spirit of mutual respect and the principal of justice (274).

An example expressing the tragedy of morality without ethics is the myth of Antigone, Sophocles play. In Sophocles drama, Creon is the uncle of Antigone and Polynices, unfortunate children of the union of Oedipus and his mother. Polynices leads an army contesting Creon's governorship of Thebes. Creon defeats and kills his nephew, exposing his corpse as carrion and refusing to allow its burial because of Polynices challenge to the city-state. Antigone pleads that family blood should allow leniency, but Creon is not moved. Placing family values above the interest of the city, Antigone throws a handful of dust on her brothers corpse, only to be arrested and sentenced by her uncle to death by imprisonment in a tomb. At the last minute, Creon decides to let Antigone live, but he is too late; she has committed suicide and Creon's family is destroyed as a result.

Within the realm of morality, there is no solution to this conflict. Both Antigone and Creon, claiming to be sole authors of their lives, passionately draw lines between family and city-state that admit of no nuances, no exceptions. Inevitable collisions result from this one-sidedness. The possibility of reconciliation would require moving from the level of morality to that of ethics, where can be found a wholeness beyond either partiality and mutual recognition (248).

This example reveals how conflict arises not only in the characters one-sidedness but also in the one-sidedness of their moral principles. For those of us seeking peace within the complexity of postmodern life, it is well to be aware that moral principles themselves can be the source of destructive conflict. This does not mean abandoning morality either to arbitrariness (the "anything goes" spirit of some postmoderns), or to univocity (ignoring emergent voices); rather we of peace can be united in discovering Something in between.

Norvene Vest
norvene @

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Dear Benedictine library staff members,

The original ABA Librarians Section (from the 1940s into the 1980s) looked much like the original version of the ABA, an organization for professional academicians. That section morphed into an ABA "Librarians and Archivists Section" which then morphed into the current "Archivists Section," with its monastic focus. However, the ABA Librarians Section disappeared. Let us test the spirits and ask: Should an ABA Library Section be reestablished?

The purpose of the ABA is to cultivate, study, and support the Benedictine heritage within contemporary culture. It does this through collaboration among members and by serving as a catalyst to discuss challenges to Benedictine values in our time. An ABA Library Section could, once again, help Benedictines to cultivate our ancient library heritage in our day.

The purpose of an ABA Library Section could achieve these ends among Benedictine communities:

One could simply join the Catholic Library Association, but it is fairly large. Much as with other ABA sections, a library section would be small, focused, and well-suited to Benedictines.

I offer the following ideas to stimulate reflection on the possibility of reestablishing an ABA Library Section:

+ The Benedictine library tradition reaches back to the sixth century, directly to the Rule of Benedict. This is an unusually long library heritage, part of our patrimony. It deserves to be nurtured.

+ Lectio is an essential component of our spiritual life. Thus, to a significant degree, libraries support the practice of lectio.

+ The library world, and the nature of scholarship, is currently in an epochal shift. What we are experiencing as the third millennium of Christianity dawns is similar to the shift of values and their associated technologies which took place from the 15th into the 16th centuries, when information culture shifted from mostly manuscript to mostly printed technology.

+ A library is a repository of culture, through books, displays and gatherings of people who share common interests. This means that a library is a principal conduit through which a Benedictine community interacts with its milieu.

+ In our Benedictine tradition a library can work in tandem with our charism of hospitality as a place to welcome guests as Christ.

+ A library, like a church, has a reverence for silence, and for similar reasons; i.e., so that one may hear the still, quiet voice of God within, the "tiny whispering sound" which guides us.

+ The theme of the 2012 ABA convention is: "Seek Peace and Pursue It: Monasticism in the Midst of Global Upheaval."

Viewed optimistically, Benedictine libraries are positively affected in this upheaval as library systems shift worldwide from print to digital technology. This raises a multitude of questions and provides manifold opportunities. These can be addressed fruitfully through values which have guided Benedictines through far more challenging epochs of global upheaval. Indeed, this is a principal reason for librarians to collaborate. Through synergism we can achieve far more than we can in our separate worlds. Benedictine libraries can help to give a direction to our part of the global upheaval, by leaning on the stability that ever guides us to Christ.

If you have interest in an ABA Library Section, which would begin at the 2012 ABA Convention, please contact me.

Br. Cyril Drnjevic, OSB
Mount Angel Abbey
cyril.drnjevic @

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A Turkish Pilgrimage for Benedictine Oblates

October 10-21, 2011

You are invited to join other Benedictine oblates from various monasteries as we visit the land where the Christian faith matured and developed. We will explore our monastic heritage together, visit places of importance to the life and work of St. Paul and the early church, and delve deeply into the history and spirituality of icons. Hopefully we will grow closer to God as we pray at such pilgrimage destinations and holy places as Abraham's birthplace, St. Peter's Church in Antakya (Antioch), Mary's House near Ephesus and, of course, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.

Rev. Keith Homstad, an oblate of Saint John's Abbey (Collegeville, MN), has planned a unique pilgrimage in Turkey specifically for Benedictine oblates. Rev. Homstad is an iconographer and an ordained ELCA minister. The pilgrimage is scheduled for October 10-21, 2011, and will go as far east as Sanliurfa (Ur), believed to be Abraham's birthplace, as well as Harran, Antakya (Antioch), Ephesus, and Istanbul. We will visit cave monasteries and underground cities in the exotic landscape of the "fairy chimneys" in Cappadocia.

We will visit Assyrian Orthodox monasteries and churches in and around Mardin, and hear the Bible read and prayers offered in the language Jesus spoke. The entire itinerary, plus other information about costs, etc., can be found at < Turkey.htm>. Registration is required by the middle of July.

Please contact Rev. Keith Homstad (<keithhomstad @>, 507-645-5111) or Rev. Budd Friend-Jones <buddfj @> for more information.


Seek Peace and Pursue It:
Monasticism in the Midst of Global Upheaval


2-5 August 2012

St. Scholastica Monastery
Duluth, Minnesota

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